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Rakell needs permanent switch to center

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Getzlaf’s absence should propel Rakell to No. 1 pivot

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at Colorado Avalanche Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

There is no better time to find out what the Anaheim Ducks have in Rickard Rakell than right now.

Really that was the case before a game was even played in 2017-2018, but it's even more prevalent now that the Ducks will be without franchise center Ryan Getzlaf for the foreseeable future.

Ducks general manager Bob Murray announced Tuesday that Getzlaf will miss up to two months after undergoing surgery to repair a fracture in his cheek.

An absent Getzlaf isn't really a new concept for the Ducks this season — the 32-year-old has already missed eight of Anaheim’s 14 games. Now that Getzlaf’s situation is more permanent, the Ducks’ coaching staff can develop a concrete idea of what the lineup should look like.

And that lineup should start with Rakell assuming the role as the team's No. 1 center.

The Ducks have toyed with Rakell's position his entire career. Looking back at Bob McKenzie's scouting report on Rakell after the Ducks selected him with the 30th pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, even then there was confusion on what position he actually was. McKenzie described Rakell as a “defensive-minded” pivot that can win draws but won't provide high-end offense. NHL Central Scouting didn't even list Rakell as a center — they had him on the right wing.

McKenzie’s assessment looks like a total miss. Rakell came into his own in 2016-17, leading Anaheim with 33 goals in 71 games. He only won 42.2 percent of his draws and was rarely trusted to start a shift in his own zone.

According to corsica.hockey, this season at even-strength Rakell has spent about 45 minutes on a line with Corey Perry and Getzlaf, 45 minutes centering Jakob Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano, and 40 minutes in the middle between Cogliano and Perry.

All of Rakell's other line combinations have yet to total more than 20 minutes together.

What's concerning is that on Nov. 1 against Toronto — Anaheim's first game after Getzlaf's injury — Rakell played on Kalle Kossila's wing. That was Kossila's fourth career game and yet the Ducks felt more comfortable with him at center than Rakell.

Results were not positive. The Ducks lost 3-1 and Rakell had one of his worst games of the season (-3, two shots, 26 percent Corsi).

Rakell hasn’t played more than 20 minutes in any of the three games since Getzlaf’s injury.

It's just more evidence of the Ducks fiddling with Rakell's position despite Ryan Kesler's extended absence and Getzlaf's inconsistent availability. Now with Getzlaf out and Kesler, who has resumed skating, not expected back for another month, the Ducks are very thin at center. And it's tough to win in the National Hockey League without centers.

After Rakell, the Ducks' available pivots are Derek Grant (eight points in 14 games, but three goals in 100 career games), Kossila (five career NHL games), Dennis Rasmussen (two points in 12 games) and Antoine Vermette (the most experienced of the bunch but not a scoring-line player at this point in his career).

That's a grim looking group even with Rakell and the Ducks cannot afford to make a scarce group even worse by keeping its most talented option on the wing.

While Getzlaf's absence is a major negative for the organization, it provides an opportunity to see if Rakell can handle the workload of a No. 1 center for the long haul. Kesler, even before his hip surgery, was no longer a reliable scoring threat. Vermette, as previously mentioned, is better suited as a faceoff specialist in a defensive role.

Talent aside, there are reasonable factors about why the Ducks have been hesitant to fully commit to Rakell in the middle. Production-wise, Rakell's best minutes have come as a winger with Getzlaf. That's not a huge surprise — Getzlaf is one of the best centers in hockey and has a track record of making the players around him better. When Randy Carlyle decides to load up with Getzlaf, Perry and Rakell together, that line is one of the most dangerous in the NHL.

As the chart below shows, Getzlaf-Perry-Rakell has the 10th-highest amount of ice time at even-strength over the last three seasons. Of the nine lines with more minutes, only two have better possession numbers.

The Ducks also emphasize winning faceoffs, which is easily Rakell's biggest weakness. His career 46.1 winning percentage at the dot limits how often Carlyle will put Rakell’s line on the ice for a defensive draw.

But ultimately that is something Carlyle needs live with. Consider that when Getzlaf was 25, he won only 45.8 percent of his draws. Rakell has already shown dramatic improvement in that area in 2017-18, winning his faceoffs at a clip of 50.7 percent. Plus, aside from specific situations, possession changes so quickly in hockey that faceoffs aren't all that important.

It will be difficult for the Ducks to stay afloat without Getzlaf, but far from impossible. It's time the coaching staff hand off the scoring reins to Rakell and find out if he capable of handling an increased role.

This injury can serve as a preview of what's to come in the post-Getzlaf era. Either Rakell can step into the void and serve as an adequate replacement or he can't.

Either way, it's time to find out.

(All statistics were gathered prior to Nov. 7)